Matt Nathanson

My So-Called Epistolary Life

I know, I know, this is a bit off topic, but I’ve been pawing through a box of papers from my desk at the Boston Globe and am tripping down that special block of memory lane where nasty correspondents squat. And while I fully intended to commemorate the release of Matt Nathanson’s new album in a couple of weeks by sharing the note he sent in response to a 2008 story I wrote about male singer-songwriters, I find that I just can’t wait. I’ve cut and pasted the article in its entirety below because the Globe won’t let you read it without paying a fee. Nathanson’s eloquent retort follows. Feel free to weigh in, dear reader.

In August I dutifully arrived at the Rod Stewart show at the Comcast Center in time to catch the opening act, Josh Kelley. Kelley, known to gossip hounds as Mr. Katherine Heigl, is a singer-songwriter. He writes pop-rock tunes, plays the guitar and the piano, and sings well. He’s attractive and personable. His songs are sturdy and pretty. And he makes me feel … nothing.

Nothing is worse than feeling nothing at a concert. If you hate a band, at least you can whine about it to your friend in the next seat, and if you’re me, you can register a public complaint in the newspaper. And odds are good I’ll receive plenty of mail from readers who love the band just as much as I don’t love the band, which confirms my view that music that makes somebody feel something is worth listening to.

Listening to Kelley, I just felt empty, and I found myself marveling once again that he and his ilk have become the mainstream standard-bearers for the genre.

“Garden-variety” is the term I used to describe Kelley in my review of the show – i.e. common, ordinary, of no special quality or type, according to the dictionary. And he’s not alone. The description suits a whole slew of singer-songwriters making the rounds of theaters, airwaves, and soundtracks with their inoffensive, unremarkable, soul-numbing songs.

Matt Nathanson, a Lexington native who lives in San Francisco, performs a sold-out show at Berklee Performance Center tonight, the same night Howie Day plays at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium. Jason Mraz comes through town Oct. 17 for a show at the Orpheum, also sold out. Matt Wertz has been on the road opening for Gavin DeGraw, Mat Kearney is making a new record, and Josh Hoge just put an album out. Ari Hest, exhibiting a flash of ingenuity, has been writing and releasing a song a week this year.

All of these artists are competent. None of them has a sound. They seem for all the world to be using a template to write their songs. Sit down to listen to a batch of them at the same time, and you’ll notice that the same pattern crops up again and again, usually in the chorus. It’s made of four chords that repeat in a cycle, sometimes tenderly and sometimes forcefully but always winsomely, suggesting lost love or found love or the bad love that inspired him – no, impelled him – to write this song.

I don’t buy it. This musician has studied hard. His introspective lyrics read like a composite of sensitive-guy cliches. He doesn’t so much sing from the gut as use his voice, expertly, in the service of a sentiment. It cracks just so to evoke his broken heart and grows bold when it’s time to be strong. He’s a little soulful, a little wounded, totally ready to be saved, and with the help of a skilled producer he pushes people’s buttons – especially those belonging to young women, a demographic that’s especially susceptible to a cute boy’s connect-the-dots charms.

And who can blame them? These guys get the job done. It’s like the recipe for McDonald’s Secret Sauce; you can count on it. It tastes the same every time. Nobody clamors for new ingredients every time they order a Big Mac, because reliability is a good thing when it comes to fast food. But sameness is depressing when it defines an artform where emotional veracity has always been the most compelling piece.

I blame John Mayer. He paved the way for this wave of well-groomed troubadours with the unlikely success of his 2001 album, “Room For Squares.” Mayer is a better musician than the lot of them, but the mass appeal of his sweet strummed pop tunes triggered a record-label spending spree on cookie-cutter tunesmiths. And it’s working, because in this era of branding and multi-platform careerism, originality isn’t the goal. Quite the opposite: The business needs innocuous, multipurpose songs that can service radio formats, dorm rooms, television dramas, film credits, and iPod ads.

The original pop troubadours carved their niche (and set the bar high) with distinctive visions spanning the literate commentary of Jackson Browne, James Taylor’s graceful meditations, and fiery soul-searching from Cat Stevens. And there are formidable talents working today, among them Conor Oberst, Damien Rice, Tom McCrae, Joseph Arthur, and Rufus Wainwright. Which makes it even harder to listen to the assembly-line sentiments and achingly familiar refrains of the Mayer descendants.

There’s enough wallpaper in the world; we don’t need uniformity from the very people who are meant to be scouring their hearts and baring their souls in song. But that venerable task has been co-opted, at least in part, by music supervisors looking for a faux-emotional tune to underscore the season’s faux-emotional teen drama, and nervous music execs hoping to reach the most people with the least distinguished palette of sounds.

It’s bad math for music lovers, but it adds up in the short term, and these days that seems to be the main frame of reference.



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  1. al janik
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    hey joan … no one will EVER be lester bangs … but thank goodness we ain’t john mayer … let alone matthowiejasonmattgavinmatjosharijosh nathansondaymrazwertzdegrawkearneyhogehestkelley!

  2. Alex Beam
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Treasure that!

  3. Scott Carlson
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    How was Rod Stewart? And you are a lot cuter than Lester…
    I think I’ll go order a Big Mac now.

    • Posted June 8, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Nathanson clearly went to charm school. At least he said something from his gut.

  4. sheryl boris-schacte
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    at least he recycled…

  5. Laura
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    He shows his maturity and heightened sensibilities with that happy face. Save this and show it to him when he’s grown up.

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